Commercial satellites alter global security

Posted on a jihadist website, the video showed a computer using the program to zoom in for close-up views of buildings at Iraq's Rasheed Airport, according to an unclassified U.S. intelligence report obtained by USA TODAY. The segment ended with the caption, "Islamic Army in Iraq/The Military Engineering Unit — Preparations for Rocket Attack."

The video appeared to fulfill the dire predictions raised by security experts in the USA and across the globe when Google began offering free Internet access to worldwide satellite imagery in 2005. Officials in countries as diverse as Australia, India, Israel and the Netherlands complained publicly that it would be a boon to terrorists and hostile states, especially since the pictures often provide a site's map coordinates.

Indeed, some terrorist attacks have been planned with the help of Google Earth, including an event in 2006 in which terrorists used car bombs in an unsuccessful effort to destroy oil facilities in Yemen, according to Yemeni press reports. Images from Google Earth and other commercial sources have been found in safe houses used by al-Qaeda and other terror groups, according to the Pentagon.

Many security experts say commercial imagery does little to enhance the capabilities of such organizations.

"You can get the same (scouting) information just by walking around" with a map and a GPS device, says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research organization specializing in defense and intelligence policy. The imagery "may give someone precise coordinates (for a target), but they need precise weapons … and their ability to target discrete parts of a particular site is pretty limited. People who think this gives you magical powers watch too many Tom Clancy movies."

Safeguards

Nonetheless, the world's governments have taken a variety of steps in response to the emergence of Google Earth and other commercial imagery sources, according to a confidential report issued in July by the CIA's Open Source Center and made public by the Federation of American Scientists. Among them:

•Negotiation. Some nations have asked Google and other companies to keep certain images off the market, the report says. For example, Google Earth uses older imagery of parts of Iraq based on British concerns about exposing military sites. Commercial satellite companies often blur images of sensitive U.S. sites, such as the Pentagon.

•Bans. China has barred websites selling "unapproved" commercial imagery, according to the report, and Sudan has banned Google Earth. In 2006, Bahrain officials banned Google Earth, but the CIA report notes that the move may have been mainly to "prevent exposure of elaborate residences and land holdings of the country's rich."

•Buying in. Several countries, such as China and Thailand, are getting into the satellite imagery business themselves, and India sells its spy photos commercially, the report says. Many countries that lack their own satellite capability have become enthusiastic purchasers of commercial imagery to meet intelligence and security needs.

•Evasion. Many countries have stepped up efforts to conceal sensitive facilities, either by putting them underground or camouflaging them, the report says. Others, such as India, have improved their ability to discern when satellites pass overhead, which allows them to conduct sensitive military activities when cameras aren't watching.

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